The glorious jacaranda trees bloomed across the land in the days just before Bob Foster and Arthur Ashe arrived to compete in South Africa last month. The jacarandas are a wonderful purple, tall and festive, and they parade across the southern spring, so that for a brief time in this bizarre place color is the joy that God meant it to be.
Otherwise, of course, color is the plague of the country, where apartheid is the law, and, more or less, the invidious answer to all things. Like Scott Fitzgerald's very rich, the South Africans are different from you and me. All peoples of the earth are quick to boast that they are uncommonly sports-minded, but the South Africans truly are exceptionally sports-minded. After all, since the black and so-called "Colored" perform all the drudgery, the whites have more time to play. Besides, in a land ruled by King Canute's philosophical heirs, there is yet no TV. So play on. Per capita, Johannesburg has more swimming pools than Los Angeles and, surely, more tennis courts than anywhere. South Africa also has about the highest divorce rate in the world. Idle hands are the devil's workshop. Or, as Arthur Ashe puts it, "Sports is the Achilles' heel of South Africa."
Ashe's declaration may sound presumptuous—that any country could really be vulnerable to silly games—but considering the way South Africans prattle on about their teams and the injustices done them, it may well be that he has chanced upon the underbelly. Maybe history will indeed show that his and Foster's visits affected policy, either by greasing the skids for apartheid, or by giving a patina of respectability to a government that, outside of Rhodesia, cannot otherwise obtain support for its principles.
In any event, the official acceptance of the two black heroes was made in the full understanding that one was almost certain to beat up unmercifully on a white man's skull as thousands of blacks looked on most agreeably, while the other had already introduced the rather uncomfortable suggestion that an H-bomb should be dropped on Jo'burg. It surely was one of the single most vital political decisions in the realm of sports ever made by a government. The dual ploy coming off without incident—Ashe reached the finals of the South African Open and Foster retained his light-heavyweight title without enraging Afrikaners in the outback—may even have affected the ultimate course of the nation. The one man responsible for the athletes' presence, a hawk-nosed Rhodes scholar named Pieter Koornhof, Minister of Mines, Immigration, Sports and Recreation, put his career on the line. That he passed the test now makes it all the more likely that he will emerge as the successor to Prime Minister John Vorster.
Ashe met (negotiated?) twice with Koornhof, and after the second t�te-�-t�te the words "inhuman" and "abhorrent" suddenly disappeared from Ashe's departing statement. Presumably some kind of price was paid for their inoperativeness. Similarly Koornhof turned a blind eye when the tennis promoter, Owen Williams, a man as decent as he is capable, had tickets in all sections quietly handed out to blacks so that Ellis Park could be completely, if only technically, integrated. For his part, Ashe accepted this on good faith and did not protest the continued existence of a nonwhite section. Even the seating distinctions at the fight were somewhat diminished too, in that blacks could buy tickets in all price categories and there were no physical separations in the reserved sections.
"There is a concept in economics called comparative advantage," Ashe declared wryly at one point, "when two nations will trade with each other if they both believe they can gain. Now, I know the government is using me, but I'm using it, too."
Foster, as befits an uncomplicated family man with five children who works full-time as a $720-a-month sergeant in the sheriff's office back home in Albuquerque, N. Mex., dealt in somewhat less lofty terms. He elaborated: "My manager said, 'We're getting two hundred thousands dollars.' I said, 'Let's go.' I get my two hundred thousand, do my job, and get out of here." That pithy summation, delivered in advance of the bout, suffices as a postmortem for his 13th title defense. Before 42,000 fans, contributing the richest gate in the division's history, $474,000, Foster beat on his white pay envelope named Pierre Fourie (pronounced Peery Fur-EE) just as he had cashed in on the same poor bloke last August in Albuquerque.
This time, though, Foster too often failed to accept opportunities that his long left leads gave him. "I just couldn't get nothing going together," he said afterward, while graciously volunteering that Fourie was the better fighter, save for his own considerable height advantage. The decision was clear-cut enough, but it did take a strong last three rounds from Foster, and his best tattoo of the evening did not come until late in the 14th round when he caught Fourie with two quick rights and then a telling left.
In the middle going, Fourie had been able to duck under the taller man's left to score regularly with his hooks. He is a limited puncher though, a middleweight proving the Peter Principle, and the anxious white fans were never seriously teased with false hopes. From the time the South African national anthem was played—when all the whites stood and sang The Call of South Africa
while all the blacks sat—there was no great effort in discerning who was for whom. Yet it was a rather docile crowd gathered under the starless sky that watched a black man and a white man knock each other about in their mutual sweat—and even in a little bit of the white man's blood.
Foster's fight was restricted to the ring, however, and his unconcern for "politics" led to an increasing disaffection with members of his own race. "Foster stinks," snapped a councilman of Soweto, that hideous squalid urban reservation where the million blacks who service Jo'burg are sequestered. Others murmured an ominous agreement. "We don't want his kind back. Foster is nothing but a kaffir" a Colored salesman said, employing the ultimate insult, the hated indigenous equivalent for "nigger." Blacks had welcomed Foster as "Lost Tribe" in the euphoric days when he first arrived, but by the end of his stay the most charitable assessment of the educated black community was: Well, what could you expect from a bloody cop?